Lavish, melodramatic love story based on a literary classic
Breathtaking visuals and lavish musical numbers are the hallmark of this period drama, one of the most iconic films in Bollywood history.
Based on the 1917 novel of the same name, “Devdas” tells the story of a young man (Devdas) and the girl next door (Paro) who’s deeply in love with him. But Devdas only sees her as a childhood friend. By the time he realizes his true feelings, it’s too late, as Paro’s parents have arranged for her to marry another man.
Despondent, Devdas becomes a recluse, drowning his sorrows in booze and living in a brothel. There he meets a ravishing courtesan (Chandramukhi), who becomes devoted to him. But Devdas only has eyes for Paro, the one who got away. The tragic love triangle comes to a climactic end as Devdas descends into an alcoholic spiral.
Let’s make one thing clear—”Devdas” is not a breezy film. With melodramatic acting and a running time of three hours, “Devdas” is synonymous with everything that’s over the top about Bollywood. But that’s exactly why I love it. “Devdas” is a visual spectacle. The director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is a brand name in Bollywood, known for his operatic style. Nothing tops “Devdas” in terms of gorgeous sets, opulent costumes, and stylized cinematography. Watching the movie feels like seeing a series of lush oil paintings come to life. And the musical numbers are to die for, re-created time and again at every Indian wedding from Mumbai to Mississippi.
That’s what happens when you pair the two best Bollywood dancers of the last twenty-five years—Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai. Madhuri (who plays the courtesan) ruled the Indian film industry in the late ’80s and ’90s, until she passed the baton to former Miss World Aishwarya (who plays the ingénue). Director Bhansali scored a major coup when he announced that “Devdas” would feature these prima donnas going toe-to-toe for the first time. Audiences were so eager to see the stars on-screen together that he added a fierce dance duel between them, even though in the novel the two characters never meet—a significant departure that angered many critics and literary fans.
Speaking of fans, how can we talk about “Devdas” without discussing its megawatt lead, Shah Rukh Khan? King Khan, as he’s known, has reigned over the Bollywood box office for the past three decades – beloved by hundreds of millions of devoted followers. From romantic heartthrob to action star to dark antihero, he’s done it all—with his signature, melodramatic acting style. He’s been called the biggest movie star in the world by Forbes and Time, reportedly earning more money than Tom Cruise. Though his portrayal of “Devdas” is not without its detractors (many find his overwrought performance to be unworthy of such a literary treasure), this film will always hold a spot in the pantheon of Shah Rukh Khan classics.
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Madhuri Dixit
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Writers: Prakash Kapadia, Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Based on the novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay
Music Director: Ismail Darbar
Read more about my favorite Bollywood films in Bollywood Kitchen: Home-Cooked Indian Meals Paired with Unforgettable Bollywood Films by Sri Rao (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).